The Ryan Report into the abuse of children in Irish schools run by Roman Catholic religious organisations is a sobering document. Its contents are so shocking that it takes a certain act of will to believe in its findings. Reports of sexual violence of every conceivable kind co-exist with descriptions of systematic or casual brutality of an almost childish nature — forcing children to drink water from toilet bowls, springs to mind, the kind of thing a perverse schoolyard bully might come up with (indeed I myself saw it perpetrated as a kind of initiation rite in a boarding school I briefly attended, inflicted on my classmates by boys two years older than us). A generation of poor children (they are always poor) was ravaged in the name of god by a church that professed to cherish them. Suffer the little children to come unto me that I may profit by them and fuck them and beat a living hell into them in order to make them better people.
The debate in Ireland has widened and deepened since the report first burst into our consciousness. Perhaps, in the process, it has become a little too diffuse. Other institutions are being indicted for their part in this poor child’s hell. The Departments of Education, Health and Justice; the judiciary; the medical profession; lay teachers; the public at large; the Gardaí. More of that anon, but first of all, let us establish one fact: it was not the medical profession or the Department of Education that was buggering boys and raping girls. It was brothers and sister in Christ, members of spiritual congregations, people who had taken vows of poverty and chastity, and who had devoted their lives to the Christian concept of caritas, nowadays generally translated as ‘love’. It was the institution of the church that enabled and protected the holy rapists. The institution profited by it — actual profits in hard cash because in the system of capitation grants that sustained children in the welfare system the money followed the child (hence a double injustice, the church earned a profit from the children it fucked). It was the institution that silenced its critics and destroyed or attempted to destroy their lives.
Since the publication of the report church figures have been tripping over their own protuberant humilities, but nothing can possibly change the mindset of a group that believes itself linked by an irrefutable chain of evidence to omniscience.*
Now the church is under pressure to pay its fair share of the compensation needed by its victims and it is refusing to do so. Caritas, it seems, must express itself in ways other than pecuniary, even though peculation was part of the original sin. Surprise surprise. We all know the excuses: ‘Those profits were hard-earned, it was unpleasant work and but for the charity of the church no one would have done it, we owe a lot to our religious institutions in Ireland, where would we be without them, in our darkest times they stood by us…’ And other sentimental cockshit. Hitler built the autobahns.
Let the church pay. It’s rich enough. It was rich enough to buy the state once. It may be poor now, but it’s still not as poor as Jesus wanted it to be when he said, ‘If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.’
But I am not suggesting that the departments of government, the judiciary, the medical profession, teachers, guards and the public at large bear no responsibility. The critical thing to understand is that the highest value in all of these transactions is power. When, on his election as government minister, the supposed radical and ex-revolutionary Seán
McBride got into his car and drove to the pro-Cathedral to assure Archbishop McQuaid of his loyalty, what he was acknowledging was that his own power as a cabinet minister was contingent upon the church’s power. And that the church could undo him. The most notorious example of this power was the destruction of Dr Noel Browne, Minister for Health and party comrade of McBride, for the terrible sin of proposing that mothers and children should have free access to medical care. If children and mothers were to be allowed to die rather than have ‘socialised medicine’, why should we be surprised that they suffered and died in their mother church’s own tender care.
The church in turn exerted its power in many delicate and theological ways — by supposedly imposing celibacy on its members, for example, by cornering the market in hypocrisy and self-sacrifice, by controlling education and medicine, by manipulating believers and isolating non-believers, and by destroying its critics. Institutions and individuals bought into that power and hoped to profit by it. Most craven perhaps were the politicians, followed closely by the judges, for these were the people whose own power was commensurate with that of the church. The further down the line it went the more difficult any resistance was and the more cataclysmic was the odium of the men of god until a humble country curate or one of his parishioners could expect to be buried under a mountain of shit for asking a question.
Everything could have been different after the War of Independence if the post-revolution government had not been intent on slipping into the seats of the people they ousted. The Free State could have done as England did; they closed their industrial schools in the thirties. They could have simply thought about the injustice of locking up a boy for eight years for mitching school, or a girl for going with boys. They could have made that judgement without ever knowing about the rape and the murder and the sadism. Common kindness, uncommon as it is, could have changed the discourse.
The judges could have given a modicum of thought to the meaning of the sentences they handed down, but the reality was the church needed a steady supply of boys and girls for financial reasons, and to feed their overweening messianic certainty that they are the way the truth and the life, and the judges, mostly devout Roman Catholics, often members of semi-secret organisations like The Knights of Columbanus (and nowadays Opus Dei), were reluctant to deprive their holy mother church of a lucrative source of revenue. Besides, many of the politicians and judges were so starry-eyed about the church that they actually believed that taking a girl child away from her family and giving her to celibate women, or giving a boy child to a party of men living in a prison was the best thing for them. These same politicians and judges celebrated the ‘central position of the family’ in the Irish constitution!
Thus was formed a structure of power that came to strangle Irish society for five decades. John Banville put it well last weekend in the New York Times: ‘Ireland from 1930 to the late 1990s was a closed state, ruled – the word is not too strong – by an all-powerful Catholic Church with the connivance of politicians and, indeed, the populace as a whole, with some honorable exceptions.’
Such a structure, enforced at the front by the heartlessness and hypocrisy of teachers, police force and judiciary and at the heart by the humiliation and violence of the congregations of the faith, has unintended consequences, not the least of which is a coarsening of all human relations within it, so that the brutality and sadism of the upper hierarchy is transmitted to the lower echelons, the priests and brothers and nuns infecting the children in their care with their monstrous pitilessness and brutality, simultaneously perpetuating their regime and justifying it. It was a rare child who survived the care of the fascist brotherhoods and sisterhoods to emerge with a heart and soul intact, with their lives in their own hands.
This violence of the church was a necessary corollary of the state itself. When we talk about ‘soft totalitarianism‘, meaning the brutality that the state needs in order to maintain it’s hegemony but pretends to disavow, the kind of thing we saw at the London G20 protest, we must count the industrial schools as our state concentration camps, our Guantanamo Bay. Here the truculent, unaccommodating poor were broken over the trousers of the Christian arm of the state. The ‘trials’ of these children were political inquisitions. The sentence was the state’s own auto-da-fe.
Nevertheless, let the blame lie where it belongs. Not the state nor the population in general was raping the children of the poor. The actual physical act was perpetrated by the church. The situation is analogous to that of the Polish people who lived near Auschwitz. They must certainly have known something of what was going on. Some may have directly collaborated. But the Nazis committed the actual crime against humanity.
Equally there were those who resisted the power in Ireland. People of national importance like Noel Browne or writer John McGahern. The church destroyed Brown and tried to destroy McGahern. But small people too. My parents never accepted the perfect goodness of the priesthood. They were ordinary people; neither had been educated beyond primary school — unless we count self-education — but they saw through the charade. Many of our neighbours also resisted it, and this was true in every part of society, even though they were always only a small part of the whole.
So even ordinary people had to want to buy into the power structure. It was a decision like any other fateful decision. To become a priest-worshipping sycophant is a life-changing choice in any culture, and that is exactly what most of the people were who figure in this report and who weren’t themselves members of the priestly class.
Now the argument is often advanced that there were many good men and women in the church and that their motives and actions were impeccable. In this analysis there is a kind of twin-track institution in which the good go about their business and save souls and comfort the sick and the imprisoned, while elsewhere, on another parallel track, the evil play their terrible games of power and terror. Pope Benedict made a similar claim in relation to his own past: I was one of the good Nazis. I do not intend to impugn the good name of those men and women who attempted to lead a moral life in an immoral system. I have met many of them. They were full of love for their imagined god and for their fellow-man and full of excuses for the church. Rather I would like to say that the system itself is and was always corrupt. Power not piety was always at its heart. The only moral response is to reject the system. Those women and men who joined it because of the Sermon on The Mount were sadly misled. The meek shall never inherit the earth if the church has its way; those who hunger and thirst after righteousness shall find themselves in prison; the merciful shall be pissed upon by the merciless; the persecuted shall be the persecuted in saecula saeculorum and the followers of Jesus shall be on the other side of the wire; the poor shall not even be allowed to be blessed in spirit but their minds and bodies shall be polluted by the servants of the followers of Jesus; and the followers of Jesus shall revile and persecute and say all manner of things falsely against anyone who gainsays them. For theirs is the kingdom, the power and the glory.
If I were a good man and a priest I would leave the church now.
* Studies Magazine, run by the Irish Jesuits, provides a nice example of how this institution thinks. In May it took John Banville to task for his ‘rhetorical swipe’ (sic) at the church. It quotes his May 23rd article in the New York Times (Quoted above) Studies responds: ‘The argument is specious, because, until the 1980’s, 95% of the Republic’s population was Catholic and at least 90% of those Catholics were practising. It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that the clerical wing of society was so influential and so numerous, but the Church did not rule and was often used by politicians to push their own viewpoints and validate their own agendas.’. ‘Banville used to be a good writer,’ Studies says, damning with faint praise, ‘but he’s not a great historian.’
, and a regular contributor to Three Monkeys Online. This article first appeared on his blog The Ice Moon